Two Sides of a Triangle
by Sherri Cook Woosley
part 1 of 2
A dying request is a common thing — some would say an attempt to set things right at one’s mortal end — but Joe Hammond’s request was strangely oblique and, per his instructions, announced at his gravesite rather than in the privacy of close quarters. I’d like my darling to take my most prized possession and cast it in as there’s no one to follow. The request seemed to be almost in code, as if the man had a secret.
But, he didn’t. Everyone in this part of Southern Appalachia knew that Joe had a woman in town named Rosie that he’d been seeing for nearly a decade while his own wife, Myrtle, kept her head high and her mouth closed.
As the service ended, groups of people moved away and Myrtle knew that they would be at her house soon.
A neighbor leaned over. “Myrtle, would you like us to wait for you?”
“No, go on please. I’d like to sit here for just a moment more.” The new widow’s white hair was in the soft permanent that she got once a month and she wore a conservative calico dress that had seen other solemn occasions for thirty-odd years. The plain-woven fabric had an intricate hand-stitched black lace overlay from waist to hem. A round hat perched on top of the white curls in the barest hint of adornment.
Creases caused by strain were on her not-young face, and glasses did not hide the sadness in her faded blue eyes as they swept the grave around to the tree line. A flicker of movement; a rustle that could have been either a common raven flitting from branch to branch or the hint of a black dress slipping deeper into the woods.
A hand tapping her shoulder made Myrtle jump and she turned her head to look at Pastor Standford.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Myrtle, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
He appeared concerned and Myrtle tried to smile, her instinct not to cause anyone trouble. “That’s perfectly all right, Pastor.”
“I have the box here and Joe’s wedding ring separate in this little bag. Would you like me to carry them up to the house for you?”
“I’ll be fine, pastor. Just help me get my legs under me, please.”
She struggled to stand, her upper legs not as strong as she would like. One last glace at the grave. “Nigh on forty-five years of marriage.”
And then a young man came bounding down the hill and stopped just short of Myrtle. “My mama sent me to escort you up the hill.”
Pastor Standford let her take the box with the bag sitting on top. “I’m sorry for your loss, ma’am. Joe was a good man.”
Myrtle let her gaze slide to the woods again and then took the boy’s arm with her right hand, her left fingers gripping the box against her chest with effort. It wasn’t Pastor Standford’s fault that he didn’t know. He’d only replaced Pastor Jacob nine years ago. The man was practically new.
Walking up toward her house on the hill was a source of strength for Myrtle, an occasion to feel deep roots steadying her soul. This area had been a coal-mining town, the land underneath shaped by men’s sweat, by men who squared responsibility on their shoulders.
In return, women knew that God and food would see you through. Tomato soup was Myrtle’s job. For twenty years her specialty was standard at town disappointments, reserved as a gift for wintry nights after a particularly bad hometown football game, a death in the family, or as sympathy for a drawn-out illness. So many were willing to celebrate, but she’d volunteered to take the harder burden. That’s what a good woman did.
The boy — surely one of Betsy’s four sons, Myrtle guessed — helped open her door. On the table, centered, was the same elaborately wrought silver tureen that Myrtle had carried to other houses, now sitting in her own front room, tendrils of steam curling up and out of the orange mixture, a lighter shade than more traditional soups.
Betsy, a farmer’s wife, was standing by the tureen, ladle in hand. She gestured toward a chair by the fireplace and the boy waited while Myrtle placed the box underneath her chair and the small bag with his wedding ring on the fireplace mantel.
“Can I get you anything, ma’am?”
“No, sweetheart.” Myrtle patted his hand. “I just need to rest for a moment.”
From the table, Betsy watched Myrtle’s eyes close and then she dipped the ladle into the soup. The ladle gently pressed down on the surface before pushing into the thick liquid. Emerging like a Christian at baptism, the ladle overflowed into Betsy’s bowl.
“Hmmm,” she said with appreciation, watching the stewed tomatoes tumble and fall. “Would you like some?” she offered her niece, Cassie.
“I don’t know. I don’t normally care for soup.”
“Ah, someone who doesn’t care for Myrtle’s soup. I can hardly believe it.”
Betsy and her niece turned to see Gertie Cuthbert advancing, wearing her severe funeral dress and a matching self-righteous expression. Gertie sought out any opportunity to naysay Myrtle’s soup. However, most folks remembered that Gertie had lost to Myrtle three consecutive years at the Piedmont regional fair.
“Hello, Gertie,” Betsy greeted the woman. “The minister did a nice job with Joe’s funeral, didn’t he?”
“He did, I suppose, but I still miss Pastor Jacob, God rest his soul.” Gertie sniffed. “Who is this?”
“My niece, Cassie. My brother thought it might do some good for her to spend a summer on the farm with me.”
Gertie’s eyes narrowed. “Yup, I can see the family resemblance. Nice to have you here. It’ll also be a help for you, Betsy, feeding all those boys of yours.” Gertie looked over her shoulder. “Myrtle’s asleep.”
“Poor thing’s exhausted.”
“Well, why don’t you go ahead and pour me some of that soup while I’m just standing here.”
“Sure enough.” Betsy served her nosy neighbor. “Cassie?”
“I guess.” The girl was about fourteen. “Is it fattening?”
Betsy gave a small serving to Cassie. “This soup is a tradition around here. Just go on and try it. Most tomato soups are plain, but this one is special. No one knows Myrtle’s recipe.”
“I bet it is fattening.” Gertie raised her eyebrows and gave a sharp nod. “I bet she uses straight cream cheese to get it this thick. I’ve been telling that to Richard for years, but he won’t believe me.”
Whether or not Myrtle’s soup contained cream cheese was left for another discussion as the woman herself, bird-like, fluttered her eyes open and sat up straighter over the box containing her husband’s ashes. Gradually a line formed as people made their way over to offer a comforting word or a hug of sympathy.
Cassie had begun with a spoonful of Myrtle’s soup and then sheepishly asked for more.
“Didn’t I tell you that it was good?” Betsy looked over her glasses at her niece. “I remember when I was pregnant with Charlie. He’s my third and I was having a terrible time. I couldn’t keep a thing down and had just enough energy to lay stretched out on the couch and pray that nothing bad would happen to the two older boys while I was too sick to properly care for ’em.
“Then one day there’s a knock on the door and there stands Mrs. Myrtle with this same silver tureen of soup and some freshly baked bread. She stayed with me all day and left enough soup for supper. That was really the turning point, because after that I felt better each day. I will never forget Mrs. Myrtle for bringing her soup to me and my family.”
Gertie had surreptitiously given herself seconds while Betsy was talking. “Well, Betsy, you act like the soup done healed you when she was just doing a good deed and nothing more. I will say, however, that Myrtle was certainly a better wife than Joe was a husband. She committed to her marriage and gave of herself to everyone else. Too bad he couldn’t follow his vows.”
Betsy looked uncomfortable, “Now Gertie, I don’t believe in speaking ill of the dead.”
“I am not speaking ill of the dead, Betsy, I am merely speaking well of the living.”
Cassie’s eyes were huge as she looked from her aunt’s face to Gertie’s, anxious to hear whatever was coming next.
“Still. Little pitchers have big ears.” Betsy reached for a new bowl and poured a small serving. “Take this over to Myrtle, Cassie. She needs some sustenance.”
Gertie snorted. “It isn’t a secret to anyone that Joe was running about with that hen from across the river. How Myrtle put up with him I just don’t know. To countenance that for years... I’ll tell you what: I would kick Richard right out if he ever made me such a laughingstock.”
“I don’t think anyone was laughing, Gertie.” Betsy stirred the remnants of her soup with the rounded spoon. The warmth of the tomato soup had spread through her like a soothing brandy. Her stomach was full, her eyes were heavy, and Betsy did not want to think about the woman that Joe Hammond had loved more than he had loved Myrtle.
Cassie approached Myrtle. “I brought you some soup.”
The old woman smiled and took the bowl from Cassie with hands that were the least bit unsteady. “Aren’t you a thoughtful girl!”
“Um, no, ma’am. Aunt Betsy sent me over.”
Myrtle gave a little laugh. “I see. You’re honest, too.” Myrtle cocked her head to the side and adjusted her glasses. “I don’t have any children. Did your Aunt Betsy tell you that?”
Cassie shook her head.
“What’s your name?”
“Cassie, ma’am.” She did a little bob. “I’m here for the summer to help out.”
“Well Cassie, do you like to cook?”
“I don’t really know.”
“I’m getting old, Cassie, and it’s time for change.” Myrtle sighed, let one hand drop to pat the box under her chair. “No one to follow, as Joe would say. Come back tomorrow. Tell your aunt I said to.” Myrtle set the untouched soup bowl on the mantle over the fireplace, the spoon rattling against the edge like the devil was in it.
Cassie returned to her aunt’s side. “Mrs. Myrtle says I should come back here tomorrow and she’s gonna teach me to cook.”
Betsy blinked before she said, “Well, I guess you’ll be the new secret keeper of the soup.” She snuck a look at Gertie, who was smashing her lips together.
With a shy smile, Cassie said, “Yes, ma’am.”
Betsy looked out the window and spoke louder. “Well, Gertie. It was real nice seeing you, but Cassie and I need to get back home. The almanac said there’ll be some rain tonight.”
“Don’t need an almanac to tell you that there’s rain in the autumn.” Gertie insisted upon the last word.
Betsy’s exit was obviously a cue, because soon the last guests were gathering belongings and saying their farewells. The sun sank behind the permanent backdrop of Appalachian mountains. Orange light remained in the air as if the mountains were spilling that tureen of Myrtle’s soup across the Appalachian sky. With the source of warmth gone, standing outside would now require a shawl for someone of Myrtle’s age. Clouds flirted at the edge of the horizon.
Alone in the house, Myrtle rose from the chair, leaning on the furniture for support. She picked up crumpled napkins and carried the soup bowl from the mantle. Moving over to the soup tureen she noted with satisfaction that it was almost empty.
Copyright © 2013 by Sherri Cook Woosley